The War Against the 'War on Drugs'
For Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance in Southern California, sacrosanct legislative underpinnings of the "war on drugs" are starting to look like the Berlin Wall, "up one day and down the next"--seemingly impregnable; in reality, utterly fragile. Over the past few years, an increasing number of localities have dabbled in ways to simply walk away from the "war on drugs." Initiatives in several states and cities, including Denver; Missoula, Montana; Albany County, Oregon; and Seattle have mandated that law enforcement agencies deprioritize marijuana arrests. Several cities have begun needle-exchange programs. And states like California have passed citizens' initiatives mandating that first-time drug offenders be channeled into treatment programs in lieu of prisons.
Then there's Virginia Senator Jim Webb's legislation creating a blue-ribbon commission on criminal justice reform, with a mandate to put all questions on the table during its eighteen-month tenure--from drug law reform to the restoration of judicial discretion in sentencing, from parole reforms to different approaches to gangs, border patrol, prison architecture and the like. Webb has been pushing for systemic criminal justice reform for years; in 2009, he believes, it will acquire legs. During a telephone interview for this article, Webb said that President Obama "has personally called me on this, and he's very supportive of the idea of moving forward." Across the aisle many Republican senators, including senior figures like Lindsey Graham, have also expressed support for the idea.
The bipartisan backing for Webb's commission is partly a response to the escalating drug-and-gang crisis south of the border. There's a growing recognition in US policy and law enforcement circles that government dysfunction, phenomenal levels of street violence and the rising power of drug cartels are threatening to move from being a Latin American problem to one that destroys the integrity of the Mexican state and risks spilling over more heavily into the American Southwest. Nobody, no matter their political stripe, wants the Tijuana-ization or Juárez-ization of Phoenix or Los Angeles, of San Diego or El Paso.
"It really is a serious problem in this country," Webb argues. "The transnational gangs or syndicates are bringing a tremendous amount of drugs into this country."
To get a handle on that problem involves thinking of ways to neutralize these gangs, which inevitably leads to a discussion of partial drug decriminalization or legalization. Why? Because once the drug market is no longer confined to the shadows--once it is regulated and taxed, as alcohol was after Prohibition ended in 1933--the violence that accompanies struggles for control of that illicit market will disappear. After years of denying this truth and assuming that the country could incarcerate its way out of the drug-abuse epidemic, a number of American politicians, Webb included, are touting that seemingly paradoxical fact. Want to get really tough on crime? Well, do the smart thing: start working out ways to neutralize the drug cartels, start talking about at least limited forms of decriminalization or legalization.
It is, Webb argues, "a fair issue for this commission. Every piece of it should be fair game."